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June 15, 2006 - San Diego Union Tribune (CA)

Mexico Grapples With Wave Of Drug Violence, Pressure From Us On How To Fight It

By Ioan Grillo, Associated Press

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MEXICO CITY -- Mexican lawmakers are working to revive their bill decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine and heroin, and hope to override a veto if necessary, saying the reform will help curb drug-related violence that has killed more than 600 people this year.

President Vicente Fox called on Congress to drop decriminalization from the drug-law overhaul after intense lobbying from the U.S. State Department and mayors of several U.S. border cities, who called it a disaster that would encourage hordes of young Americans to cross the border for "drug tourism." Mexico's Roman Catholic Church also opposes it.

With the July 2 election looming and lawmakers limited to one term, any reform could be stalled until after a new president is inaugurated in December.

But the issue isn't going away, and with every new battle over drugs in Mexico City, Acapulco or the violent northern border cities, public pressure grows for reforms to laws that many say police can't enforce.

"Consumption and addiction are public health issues, while drug dealing is a criminal problem," said Rep. Eliana Garcia, who worked with the federal attorney general's office as well as the health and public safety departments to draft the original bill. "When you mix them you get corruption."

Lawmakers say they had people like Jair Jimenez in mind when they decided to decriminalize "personal use" amounts of marijuana, cocaine and heroin. Jimenez, 28, smoked and sold crack cocaine in Mexico City's tough Tepito barrio for a decade until a rival dealer put six bullets in him last July.

"When I woke up in a hospital, I was with God. He gave me the strength to free myself from this disease," Jimenez, now a regular at Narcotics Anonymous, said with a smile as he rubbed the scars on his chest and leg.

Under existing Mexican law, drug dealing is a federal crime, and so local police usually leave it to federal authorities to take on armed drug gangs, and fill arrest quotas with small-time users, Garcia said. The bill Congress passed last month with the support of all major parties would empower local police as well as federal agents to investigate drug pushers.

While increasing penalties for large amounts of drugs, it would decriminalize possession of up to 25 milligrams of heroin, 5 grams of marijuana (about four joints) or 0.5 grams of cocaine -- the equivalent of about four "lines."

The president's spokesman initially said Fox would sign it, but he rebuffed it after the uproar broke out.

The leading presidential candidates, leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and conservative Felipe Calderon, haven't taken positions on the bill. But Garcia and other members of Lopez Obrador's Democratic Revolution Party are among the most outspoken supporters.

Devout Roman Catholics, part of Calderon's base, are generally against it. "Mexico, I warn, could become even more violent," said Cardinal Norberto Rivera, the Archbishop of Mexico City.

Among urban youths, nearly 1 million have used crack, heroin or methamphetamines. Crack sells for as little as $2 a hit in thousands of so-called tienditas, or little drug shops, that have sprung up in cities since drug abuse emerged as a serious problem in Mexico in the 1990s.

"Crack is the No. 1 problem we have in our cities," said Victor Guisa, head of the government's 96 drug rehabilitation clinics. "Addicts end up smoking vast quantities of rocks, making them strung out and prone to violence and schizophrenia."

Gang violence surrounding Mexican drug consumption now mixes with bloodshed unleashed by the big smuggling cartels, adding up to more than 1,500 drug-related killings last year.

"All these crimes we are seeing, all these executions have more to do with street dealing than with the big narcotics trafficking," said Attorney General Daniel Cabeza de Vaca.

The former crack addicts in Tepito's Narcotics Anonymous group think the solution is rehabilitation and investment in poor communities.

"Everyday, the list gets longer," said Jimenez, the shooting survivor, laying his palm on a mural showing the faces and names of dozens of young men shot dead in drug disputes. "This violence is exterminating our people."

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